An O’Neillian NASCAR Tragedy

Kevin Ward, Tony Stewart

Kevin Ward, Tony Stewart

Sports Saturday

I don’t follow NASCAR racing in the least so you know that something bad had to happen for people like me to start reading about the sport. But when three-time NASCAR champion Tony Stewart accidentally killed a young driver who had gotten out of his car to yell at him, I took notice.

Apparently Stewart is a love-him-or-hate-him type of driver, one who is “old school” and loves to push the limits. He also appreciates his racing roots and sometimes returns to the dirt tracks of his youth to race on, as he did the night of Kevin Ward’s death. An aggressive driver who likes to bump other cars when they get in his way, Stewart has also been known, when he himself is bumped out of contention, to get out of his car and yell at the offender. Ward was acting like Stewart when he got out of his own wrecked car to yell at the veteran. No one is sure what happens next but it sounds to me like Stewart wanted to scare Ward and miscalculated, perhaps because he was riding on a dirt rather than an asphalt track. As he buzzed him, his back fishtailed, dragging Ward under and killing him.

The episode sounds like one of those generational tragedies that Eugene O’Neill writes, say Desire under the Elms. In that play there is a grizzled old farmer, Ephraim Cabot, who is hard as the rocks in his New England fields as he raises three sons. He even chooses to return to his old farm—like Stewart returning to the dirt tracks of his youth—rather than opting for easier farming out west. None of his sons are as tough as he is. At one point, after momentarily acknowledging weakness, he boasts of his toughness:

I’m gittin’ old–ripe on the bough. (then with a sudden forced reassurance) Not but what I hain’t a hard nut t’ crack even yet–an’ fur many a year t’ come! By the Etarnal, I kin break most o’ the young fellers’s backs at any kind o’ work any day o’ the year.

His youngest son, Eben, is tough as well, however. When Cabot describes him as soft, the other brothers disagree:

Cabot–(with a contemptuous sneer) Ye needn’t heed Eben. Eben’s a dumb fool–like his Maw–soft an’ simple!

Simeon–(with his sardonic burst of laughter) Ha! Eben’s a chip o’ yew–spit ‘n’ image–hard ‘n’ bitter’s a hickory tree! Dog’ll eat dog. He’ll eat ye yet, old man!

Eventually Eben encroaches on his father’s prerogatives, impregnating his young wife. She kills their son when she realizes that he is getting in the way of their love (Eben fears the child will inherit the farm). She repents and turns herself in and then Eben, taking responsibility for putting the idea in her head, does so as well. In this world, those who are soft go under. Unfortunately in the NASCAR tragedy, standing up to the old man and getting crushed were not metaphorical.

How will Stewart respond? He has disappeared from view–gone into hiding, as one newspaper headline puts it–as the authorities consider whether to bring charges. In the play, Cabot has a few moments of self doubt but then embraces the hardness that has brought him nothing but loneliness and forges on as before. We’ll see if the veteran driver does the same.

O’Neill’s play offers him an alternative, however. Eben could throw off Abby since he’s not technically responsible and continue to chase the farm. However, by choosing to align with her, even though it will mean going to jail, means that he has found a higher value. The stage directions even let us know that he gets a look of “grudging respect” from his father when he does so. Stewart could learn something profound from the tragedy. Will he soften any or remain rock hard?

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